This week I’m happy to introduce you to Karen Hume as my guest blogger while I am traveling. I’ve followed Karen’s blog ProfoundJourney.com since late last year. The moment I “found” her and started reading her ideas I sensed a kindred spirit. Thank you, Karen, for filling in for me and sharing some of your SMART and intriguing thoughts with all of us.
Have you ever been the only person in a parking lot at night? Or a hotel hallway after the elevator has stopped pinging and all of the guests are tucked up in their rooms asleep? Maybe you have descended to a subway platform moments after the train has left and you are alone on the platform for a minute or two. Each of these is an example of a liminal space.
The word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold. A physical liminal space is a place where we feel hyper-aware and uncertain, sometimes uncomfortable or unsafe.
Liminal Space in an empty building
When I was a teacher, I used to work very late in my school. Just before 11:00 p.m. the custodian, Ken, would open the electrical panel in a utility room near my classroom. I would hear the click as the hall lights were turned off, replaced by the otherworldly glow of small security lights. Ken would come to the door of my classroom and encourage me to go home soon. Then he would leave, and I would be alone –in a brightly lit room that was my second home, looking out at the shadowed hallway.
I wasn’t afraid. I knew that the school was empty. But I do remember well the feeling of shutting off my classroom lights, and walking those empty hallways and stairwells, down to the alarm panel inside the front doors. I would activate the alarm, push through the glass doors, and walk the few feet to my car which I always parked under a streetlamp. This was many years ago, in a different time. I would be afraid to take such actions now. But at the time, what I felt was what we always feel in a liminal space–that reality has been altered, that I am alone in the world.
Liminal Space that isn’t physical
I predict that most of us have had the experience of being in a physical liminal space. But I know with certainty that all of us have inhabited an emotional liminal space, not once but many times in our lives. They occur at any point of transition so from:
- one home to another
- married to divorced
- employed to fired or retired
- with children at home to an empty-nester
- the end of one decade to the start of another (i.e., age 59 to 60)
- a loved one in your life is gone from your life through death
Each of these examples, and there are many others, find us betwixt and between. We have left what was, but haven’t yet inhabited what’s next. That is the very definition of a liminal space.
Emotional Liminal Space scares us
Let’s not kid ourselves. Walking through an empty parking lot late at night is terrifying. Still, it’s got nothing on the fear we experience during some of life’s more challenging transitions.
As a result, most of us will avoid making a transition with everything we’ve got in us. We will stay in the lousy marriage, wait a few more years before moving, or postpone our retirement date until we have amassed more money. When we finally do enter a transition, many of us will try to get through it as quickly as possible, leaping to what’s next so we can feel comfortable and sane once again.
That’s a mistake.
Liminal Space is where the magic happens
Kathy recently wrote about Parker J. Palmer, a favorite author for her because his “words seem to speak directly … in ways I wish I had said myself.” William Bridges is one of those authors for me.
Bridges has done the seminal work on the topic of transition. Much of that work has been about managing transition within organizations, however, in 2001 he wrote a very personal account of his own transition during and after his wife’s battle with, and eventual death from, breast cancer. The Way of Transition is a book I returned to over and over as I experienced burnout and made the decision to retire early from a vocation that had meant everything to me.
Bridges helps us to understand transition as so much more than simply a change from one state to another. The work of transition actually has three parts, only one of which is the liminal space. The three parts, which Bridges says overlap rather than occur sequentially, are:
- Making an Ending
This involves more than just leaving your job, or waving bye to the kids as they move out of your house. A good ending requires that you let go not only of what you used to do, but of who you used to be. For example, some teachers retire and then immediately start working as substitute teachers “to keep their hand in.” While the argument is that it’s a bit of extra money and an opportunity to continue to work with colleagues and students, self-identification is still as a teacher. There is no ending, and therefore no possibility of transition.
- Inhabiting the Neutral Zone
This is the crux of transition, the spot I think of as the pre-eminent liminal space. Danaan Parry describes it as the space between letting go of one trapeze bar and grabbing the next one. William Bridges speaks of it as a time of chaos, as “that state of pure energy that is experienced either as a jumble or a time of empty nothingness [that] makes us feel out of control and a little crazy.”
Liminal space, as we have discussed, is terrifying. But it is also chock-full of creative potential, a time of possibility.
- Making a New Beginning
When beginnings come after a definite ending, and time hanging out in the liminal space, those beginnings have great power. Bridges assures us that they are “marked by a release of new energy in a new direction–they are the expression of a new identity.”
Note that this doesn’t mean that new beginnings, the ‘what nexts’ of our transitions are easy. Every new beginning confirms that the ending we experienced was real. We will feel again a sense of the original loss. And we may worry that this won’t be the right new beginning for us, or that we might fail.
How to Survive and Thrive in a Liminal Space
Liminal spaces require that we be willing to live with the ambiguity of not knowing what’s next. That’s an incredibly uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking place for many of us.
While waiting is the primary task of the neutral zone, there are a few things you can do while you wait.
- Schedule a new experience at least once a week. Julia Cameron’s idea of ‘artist dates’ includes everything from wandering through a toy store to taking a guided walking tour of your own town.
- Pay attention to meaningful coincidences, or what Carl Jung referred to as synchronicity. They often serve as arrows pointing the way to your next step.
- Imagine possibilities for a while without settling too quickly. Creative visualization can help you you rehearse each possibility to see what feels right.
- Access your creativity in whatever form works for you. You might plant a garden, paint a picture, or write a poem. Creative acts are both soothing and supportive of self-understanding.
- Meditate. Meditation is enormously helpful in managing anxiety and getting us used to waiting peacefully.
- Work with a therapist or coach–someone who knows how to hold space. Holding space is defined as “walking alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome.”
Here’s a post I’ve written with specific suggestions of how to thrive in all three parts of transition as a retiree.
Quotes about Liminal Space
Sometimes I find it helpful just knowing that my difficulty inhabiting a liminal space is ultimately going to be worthwhile:
“Honour the space between no longer and not yet.” Nancy Levin
“In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between them, there are doors.” William Blake
“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell
“The essence of life takes place in the neutral zone phase of transition. It is in that interim spaciousness that all possibilities, creativity and innovative ideas can come to life and flourish.” Susan Bridges
“The moment in between what you once were, and who you are now becoming, is where the dance of life really takes place.” Barbara de Angelis
Karen Hume was all about her work as a teacher, workshop leader, and author of six books until she finally burned out after too many flights, conference centers, and publishing deadlines. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, burnout was the very best thing that could have happened because it gave Karen the freedom to start figuring out how to rightsize her life for her final thirty years. Karen shares her ideas, research, and musings with a wonderful community of similarly questing women on her blog, Profound Journey.
Okay, your turn. Does Bridges’ three-part transition model resonate with your experience? What has been helpful to you while cooling your heels in the liminal space of the neutral zone? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.